Redefining National Security to Address America’s Crisis on the Border
By Esther Cull-Kahn, 2020 Girl Security Scholar
Essay reflects the views of the author.
Despite President-elect Joe Biden’s victory and the possible return to a more traditional
style of American politics, the humanitarian crisis on the United States and Mexico border is not
going to magically disappear. Many attribute the disaster on the border to Donald Trump’s
presidency. Although the Trump administration surely did not improve the situation, the issues
on the border existed for years before his presidency, during both Democratic and Republican
periods of leadership. From a national security perspective, there is an ever-growing necessity
to consider the entire range of perspectives on the issue, instead of operating from a strictly
security based viewpoint. In order to create an effective response to the border crisis,
policymakers must stray from traditional strategies; the ultimate goal in addressing the dire
situation should be to reach an agreement on how to protect both Latin American migrants and
It is possible to maintain the fundamental goals of national security–the protection of
American citizens, sovereignty, and prosperity–while recognizing the humanitarian crisis that the
United States is currently causing and enabling. Above all, the United States government needs
to be held accountable. The basic legitimacy of the United States’ founding principle as the land
of the free is jeopardized by its current oppressive and un-American border policies.
The first step in reforming border policy is to consider comprehensive approaches to
complex obstacles. In order to truly achieve justice and fairness, the entire process needs to be
reimagined, beginning with the popular misconceptions about immigration on the border.
Contrary to common belief, the majority of these migrants are not from Mexico, but from various
countries in South America and around the world; Mexico is just the entry point. The average
yearly influx of Latin American migrants is comprised of 14% from Mexico, 33% from El
Salvador, and the remaining from Honduras, Guatemala, and other countries.
Reasons for immigration vary according to each individual or family, however, migrants
are most commonly fleeing persecution, food insecurity, unstable economies, as well as race,
gender, and religious-based violence. The United States is a popular destination because it is
perceived as the land of opportunity and comparative safety. However, once arriving at the
United States border, many immigrants quickly learn that the country is not the shiny paradise
they may have expected. At the border, asylum-seekers are met with long waiting times,
“credible fear” interviews–which require proof of persecution (virtually impossible to prove)– and
impatient border security workers. Under the Trump administration, the “Remain in Mexico”
policy was implemented in 2019, which requires all migrants to wait in Mexico for their
interviews and evaluations. As a result, millions have been forced to live in either underserviced
refugee camps or a complete state of homelessness, usually in unstable and high crime areas
of Mexico. Women have been disproportionately affected by the policy, which has caused
thousands of women and girls to be subject to rape, kidnapping, and trafficking. In one Mexican
city, Tamaulipas, alone, between November 2019 and January 2020, a reported 80 asylum
seekers were kidnapped by criminal organizations. The United States government is entirely to
blame for this level of human suffering.
From a traditional national security perspective, protecting the lives and livelihood of
American citizens is of the utmost importance. Regardless of the countless injustices on the
border, the principle of law and order is commonly articulated as the most important doctrine of
national security. Yet, pursuing this priority is directly responsible for creating disorder and
lawlessness. In short, the deplorable treatment of Latin American migrants may be technically
legal, but it is morally wrong.
Largely prioritizing the lives and safety of Americans is a nationalistic principle. Most
Americans are unaffected directly by legal immigration (which accounts for the majority of all
immigration on the Mexican border). The vast disparity between the protection and attention to
American lives compared to migrant lives is evidence of the United States’ entrenched
xenophobia. In order to address the crisis, national security needs to provide safety for all
humans alike, regardless of nationality. If the American government would not treat its citizens
like disposable people, it should offer the same protection to asylum-seekers.
This national security reform does not preclude some of the existing approaches to the
crisis on the border. Many of these policies were implemented to combat Mexican gangs and
drug cartels, who were illegally crossing the border. However, those risk factors have
significantly decreased. Following various border control measures, specifically the Immigration
Reform and Control Act of 1986, which increased staffing by 50%, illegal immigration ceased to
pose the threat it had previously. From 2005-2011, the amount of illegal immigrants decreased
from 1.2 million to 378,577. Regardless, border control measures continue to intensify and
impose greater sanctions on asylum-seekers. The decrease in illegal immigration in recent
years proves how the policies are outdated and only endanger present-day, legal migrants. It is
possible to recognize and combat potential threats while not oppressing the millions of innocent
and legitimate migrants seeking asylum.
To amend the current asylum-seeker processing system, security protections against
illegal immigrants do not necessarily need to be decreased. Instead, in order to aid legal
asylum-seekers, migrant courts should be reformed and expanded. An astonishing influx of
migrants constantly overwhelms the border’s capacity to process them, forcing thousands to
wait in Mexico or in American detention centers. If more courts and processing facilities are
added, wait times would decrease, in turn, not only would the overall process be more efficient,
fewer migrants would be subject to violence in Mexican refugee camps. In addition, because
migrants do not know how to navigate the American legal system, it should be America’s
responsibility to provide them with widespread, free, and accessible legal help for both their
court hearings and initial interviews. By making these improvements to internal processing,
border security can transform into an efficient and integrated process without losing any
Overall, the attempt to address the crisis on the border must include two facets: the
reformation of the current legal processing system and the redefinition of national security. The
former can be achieved with a simple referendum and re-allocation of government money.
Instead of shoveling money into unnecessary security measures (for example, the infamous
wall), funds should be directed into expanding and improving asylum-seeker access points and
courts. The latter serves an ideological purpose that can be applied beyond the United States
and Mexican border. How the United States treats its migrants is representative of how it lives
up to its fundamental values. The hypocrisy of America priding itself as the land of the free, and yet stripping asylum-seekers and legitimate migrants of their basic freedoms, is more than an
embarrassment, it’s a moral outrage. Redefining national security to safeguard the lives and
safety of all humans, regardless of nationality, is what will push the country to actualize its
founding values. The longer America allows and perpetuates the human rights injustices on the
border, the more un-American it becomes.
I wrote this piece as a culmination of my research with the Girl Security Scholars Program, an
intensive, six-month research opportunity for high school and college aged girls interested in
national security. From June-December 2020, I conducted an individual research project on the
intersection of border security and human rights with relation to the United States and Mexico
border. Within this project, I met bi-weekly with my mentor (a female member of the national
security field), engaged in online research, and conducted multiple virtual informational
interviews with individuals who worked within the border security or human rights sector. The
program also held weekly or biweekly workshops on national security as a whole and specific
aspects of the topic. In the fall, I wrote this opinion piece on how the definition of national
security needs to be redefined in order to address the human rights crisis on the United States’s
“US: Mexican Asylum Seekers Ordered to Wait.” Human Rights Watch. December 23rd, 2019.
“Convention relating to the Status of Refugees.” United Nations Conference of Plenipotentiaries.
United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commission. July 28th, 1951.